Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Lotus and the Water Lilies
Nature Bulletin No. 196-A   June 12, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In midsummer, when the weather is hot and sultry, Mother Nature puts on an extravagant flower show. She uses just one kind of blossom. Completely covering hundreds of acres of water in shallow lakes or sluggish streams, are dense almost impenetrable beds of plants with huge green leaves like elephant ears and stately creamy-yellow flowers as fragrant as they are beautiful. This is the American Lotus, closely akin to the Egyptian lotus and the sacred lotus of the Hindus.

The American lotus grows in quiet water from 2 to 5 feet deep, where its big leaves and flowers usually stand a foot or two above the surface on thick stiff stems rising from fleshy rootstalks buried in the mud. It has several leathery dark green leaves, almost circular and from one to two or more feet in diameter, each balanced at its center, like a platter, on the stem. The great flower buds open into blossoms, from 6 to 10 inches across, with broad petals and sepals. These are followed by conical seed capsules, often the size of a man's fist. From one to two dozen seeds are set in pits in the fist top of the capsule, which breaks off and floats about, scattering the seeds.

These seeds, about the size of a white oak acorn, have a very hard shell. The Indians roasted them and ate them like peanuts, or ground them into meal to make bread, mush or dumplings. They are starchy, rich in oil, and have a flavor much like chestnuts. A few of the descendants of pioneer families in the Illinois valley still make enough flour from lotus seeds to bake a holiday cake once a year. The rootstock, which has somewhat the flavor of a sweet potato when boiled, was also eaten by the Indians. This lotus is found from Massachusetts to Minnesota and south to Florida and Texas, but it is thought that the Indians carried it across the Allegheny mountains to the east coast for its food value. In the Chicago region it is best known at Grass Lake, one of the Chain O'Lakes in northeastern Illinois, and a number of the bottomland lakes and backwaters along the Illinois River where it is called the Yackey Nut or Water Chinquapin.

In the north central states there are a few other native water lilies, near relatives of the lotus, that also grow in ponds, lake margins and slow- moving streams. Two species with large floating leaves and large floating white flowers are often seen in this region but never in beds so extensive as those of the lotus. One is the Sweet-scented Water Lily, wonderfully fragrant. The other is the odorless White Water Lily or Water Nymph. The first has round waxy green leaves, pinkish underneath and sometimes 12 inches in diameter, with a cleft on one side that extends into the stem attachment at the center. Its flowers, 3 to 6 inches broad and pure white or tinged with pink, have a center of many yellow stamens. The water nymph is similar but its flowers and leaves are larger. Both kinds have long limber rubbery stems and long rootstocks in the mud.

The Yellow Pond Lily, Cow Lily or Spatterdock, is common east of the Rockies. Its leaves, with a deep wide notch at the base, are sometimes held above water by the thick stems. It blooms all summer, bearing yellow or greenish-yellow cup-like flowers of which the conspicuous parts are the sepals. Its petals are reduced to little fleshy knobs.

The famous Royal Water Lily, native in the Amazon River of Brazil, has creamy-white flowers that turn pink or red, and gigantic floating flat leaves with upturned edges. These leaves, sometimes 6 feet in diameter, can support the weight of a 150-pound person.

The water lily, says an Indian legend, originated from a falling star.

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